Assange: They could not shoot the messenger

by Baltasar Garzón*

I don’t know if the name of Vanessa Baraitser, a judge at the Central Criminal Court in London, will go down in the history of international criminal law or in the history of extraditions in her country, but the decision she has now made will mark a turning point in her career. She refused to extradite Julian Assange, the founder of Wiki-Leaks, to the United States of America. A similar case involved Judge Ronald Bartle when he approved the extradition of Augusto Pinochet in a precedent-setting case in 1999.
  It is true that the judge could have, and perhaps should have, made a clearer decision, clearly citing the defense of freedom of expression as the authoritative basis for her ruling, but she chose to fall back on what is less complicated for the British judiciary – which is always so balanced and politically correct – humanitarian motives.
  That Julian Assange’s extradition, demanded by the United States, has been rejected has caused a collective sigh of relief. The judge has come to the conclusion that we – the team of defense lawyers that I coordinate – have so often made clear: Julian Assange’s health has deteriorated significantly as a result of years of forced detention and the constant harassment to which he has been subjected during that long period. “I find that Mr. Assange’s risk of committing suicide, if an extradition order were to be made, to be substantial”, Baraitser says. “Mr. Assange’s mental health condition is such that it would be unbearable for him to be extradited to the United States.”
  That is true. I have seen with my own eyes how the journalist and founder of WikiLeaks was treated inhumanely by powerful and omnipresent forces, how they tried by all means to silence, neutralise and eliminate him. They did not succeed. It has been a real David versus Goliath struggle that we have undertaken to prevent the United States from getting away with impunity, since 19 June 2012, when Julian asked for asylum in the Embassy of Ecuador in London. This was granted by the government of President Rafael Correa, a courageous step in the face of the powerful American government. Freedom of expression, freedom of information and, above all, the right of citizens to know who is pulling the strings that move the world. The right of citizens to know what they don’t want us to know and where they want us to go was at stake. In other words, the very foundation of democracy was at stake.

Assange has positioned himself

Julian Assange has positioned himself and paid the price. He was accused of committing 18 offenses, 17 of which fall under the Espionage Act of 1917 – you see the time we’re talking about – and one related to allegedly providing computer assistance to military officer Chelsea Manning, who the United States claims was the source of WikiLeaks. The 175-year sentence sought for that is related to the 2010 release of the Iraq and Afghanistan war diaries, the Guantánamo archives and State Department dispatches. What Assange revealed was the commission of various crimes by U.S. authorities: War crimes, torture and various international crimes.
  Since then, he has had a real history of suffering. This was confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur against Torture, Nils Melzer. As from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and, with repeated and forceful reports, by the UN Health Rapporteur. Moreover, the treatment he has received in Belmarsh’s maximum security prison since his expulsion from the embassy in April 2018 has led the court to believe that any trial against him that ends in conviction would be cruel and could lead to his certain death.
  This decision shows the disproportionality of the possible punishments and the doubts that the U.S. penal system, especially in times of pandemic, arouses in the judge and leads us to read in her decision the apparent contradiction that the trial in the complaining country would be fair, but not the execution of the punishment because it could irrevocably lead to the death of the person concerned. This statement is even more serious than the clear statement that the prosecution of Julian Assange was political and violated the right to freedom of expression, as indeed is the case from the defense point of view. The ruling, in short, disqualifies the entire US detention mechanism. The British judiciary did the same only two years ago in the case of Lauri Love of Anonymous, when it refused to extradite him to the US in February 2018 for the same reason.

Seven years of imprisonment and harassment

President Correa’s solidarity and courageous efforts prevented Assange from being extradited to Sweden when he sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London due to an obscure charge that vanished into thin air over time without indictment or evidence. All this fed the strong suspicion that it was a strategy to provoke his extradition to the United States. That was the point.
  He spent seven years in the embassy, in a room without daylight, without fresh air, with all kinds of physical and psychological suffering. He was constantly spied on. The change of government in Ecuador, with the coming to power of a president compliant with the U.S., Lenin Moreno, meant expulsion from the embassy and incarceration in a high-security prison that threatened to worsen the journalist’s fragile condition. 
  On my last visit to this prison, when we said goodbye in tears with a long hug, I really feared for his life and doubted that justice should prevail in the case of Julian Assange, while none of the serious facts he had revealed had been investigated by the country that wanted to silence him. In this dispute, the threat extended to his close environment. His lawyers were also the object of espionage by the Spanish security company (UC Global), present in the Ecuadorian Embassy and presumably linked to the American intelligence services. This is being investigated by the Central Instruction Court Number Five of the Spanish Federal Court. Not even Assange’s son, a baby, was spared from this surveillance. The latter’s life – even under such minimalist living conditions – has been closely scrutinised and analysed.

Shooting the messenger

The great sin committed by the journalist was undoubtedly the foundation of the news agency WikiLeaks, which set up a system of firewalls on IPs so that any whistle-blower in the world could send information about the commission of crimes to this platform. The source remained anonymous. Years later, a European directive for whistle-blowers is being considered along the same lines.
  Shooting the messenger has always been the modus operandi of the wicked, the criminals, those who do not know how to hide the evil they carry within them. Concealment is the forcible method they use in the belief that their sins will not see the light of day. Sometimes they succeed, but in this case the attempt did not go well. Assange was not alone, there were hundreds of thousands of voices all over the world shouting for freedom for the journalist.
  It is also true, however, that there has been much silence from authorities and unacceptable personal disqualifications. But finally, and for now, while waiting for the more than likely appeal, justice has been served.
  I think the best summary comes from Noam Chomsky, whose résumé we read at the hearing before the British judge. According to the philosopher, Assange has done an enormous service to freedom of expression and democracy: “Julian Assange’s actions, which have been categorised as criminal, are actions that expose power to sunlight – actions that may cause power to evaporate if the population grasps the opportunity to become independent citizens of a free society rather than subjects of a master who operates in secret”. This is the glory of Assange and the misery of the United States. Today, the messenger lives on. And we, his lawyers, will continue to stand up for the fact that he did nothing more and nothing less than his duty as a journalist for the benefit of all. •

Source: InfoLibre of  4 January 2021; 

(Translation Current Concerns)

* For years Baltasar Garzón (*1955 in the province of Jaén) was Spain’s best-known investigating judge. He investigated numerous politically explosive cases at the Audiencia Nacional, Spain’s highest criminal court, against drug trafficking rings, corruption cases, ETA terrorism and Franco-era crimes. In 1998, he issued an international arrest warrant for Chilean General Pinochet. This was the first case in the world to investigate a foreign former ruler under international criminal law. In 2009, he also investigated the U.S. government for torture crimes committed at the Guantánamo detention centre. In 2012, Baltasar Garzón was banned from practicing law for eleven years on charges of perverting the course of justice. Since then, he has worked as a consultant and lawyer in Latin America, coordinating the defense of Julian Assange, among others. He has received numerous awards for his commitment to human rights.

Pro memoria: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange shows a copy of the British daily newspaper “The Guardian” during a press conference at the Frontline Club in London, Britain, 26 July 2010, to discuss the 75,000 documents on the Afghanistan war that the organisation provided to “The New York Times”, London’s “Guardian” and Germany’s “Der Spiegel”. “There is no perfect information, but in the end the truth is all we have,” Assange said. (Picture keystone)

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